Should Christians Use Satire?

Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove”, perhaps the greatest satire film of all time. This is what’s at stake, people.

Yesterday, I was moseying around Twitter rather innocently: well, at least as innocently as possible for a person such as myself. As I was scrolling through the long line of news updates and quotations by famous theologians, I came across the following.

Could it be that The Gospel Coalition is taking a stand against satire and sarcasm? One Tweet does not amount to a campaign, but to have two of the biggest names in that organization make such comments does suggest a certain point of view.

Full disclosure here: I love satire and sarcasm. I employ them early and often, though I try to do so only in contexts where I know the recipient is able to take it (or will never find out!). Now, I am not looking to pick a fight with TGC, which in any case has never heard of me and can’t possibly care about my opinions. However, in my sinful flesh, my reaction to this post was that there are two types of people who don’t like satire – 1) Those who have no sense of humor, and 2) Tyrants.

If that seems a bit harsh, consider my context. I used to work for the government of Egypt. They hate the whole notion of satire. It was for this reason that they hassled the comedian Bassem Youssef until he finally left the country. This is a trend repeated under practically every dictatorial regime in history: they cannot stand it when people make fun of them.

No, I do not think that TGC is a dictatorial regime. It is powerful within certain circles, and it is rather opinionated, but I dare say that the majority of Christians in America are (gasp!) hardly affected by TGC, as large and important as it admittedly is. Whether there are people within TGC that aspire to dictatorship is a question I am in no position to answer. As with any organization made up of fallible human beings, I think it has good points and bad points.

Yet, when you are putting forth an opinion that has anything in common with Egyptian President El-Sisi, it is perhaps worth asking whether or not that is in fact the correct opinion. Is it really wrong for Christians to engage in satire, a la The Babylon Bee? What about merely attempting to be clever? Is there any proper place for using sarcasm? For making fun of something?

I had another thought when I initially saw this Tweet: “Have they seen the writings of Martin Luther?” My mind went immediately to one of Luther’s most famous works – one that has played an important role in my own spiritual/intellectual development. This would be Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, written in 1525 as a response to an earlier pamphlet by Desiderius Erasmus. In this book, Luther laid out forcibly the doctrine often known as “double predestination”. He does so claiming to be modest, but actually employing a wide range of insults and purposeful exaggerations to make his point. Despite stating that Erasmus is the clever one, Luther essentially spends a great deal of time attempting to out-clever him. Here are just a few little samples.

For although you think and write wrongly about free choice, yet I owe you no small thanks, for you have made me far more sure of my own position by letting me see the case for free choice put forward with all the energy of so distinguished and powerful a mind, but with no other effect than to make things worse than before.[1]

You pose as having a great reverence for the Scriptures and the Church, and yet make it plain that you wish you were at liberty to be a Skeptic. What Christian would talk like that?[2]

Stop your complaining, stop your doctoring; this tumult has arisen and is directed from above, and it will not cease till it makes all the adversaries of the Word like the mud on the streets. But it is sad to have to remind a theologian like you of these things, as if you were a pupil instead of one who ought to be teaching others.[3]

Naturally, your Creator must learn from you his creature what it is useful or useless to preach! That foolish, that thoughtless God did not previously know what ought to be taught until you his master prescribed for him how to be wise and how to give commandments! As though he himself would not have known, if you had not taught him, that the consequences you mention would follow from this paradox![4]

You repeat many things that are commonly said and publicly preached, and you do not realize how much of credibility and authority they lose when summoned to the bar of conscience. It is a true proverb that many pass for saints on earth whose souls are in hell.[5]

And here is my personal favorite…

Compared with [Melanchthon’s Loci Communes], your book struck me as so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or ordure being carried in gold and silver vases.[6]

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1526

In that last quote, Luther is literally claiming that Erasmus’ work is, well, something I don’t say on this site. I’ll have you know, all of those quotes came from the very first part of the book, where Luther is responding merely to Erasmus’ introduction. I could have gone on and listed all the times that Luther condescendingly refers to his opponent as “My Dear Erasmus” and the elder man’s book as “Madame Diatribe”. I could have listed every instance that he dismissively dispatched one of Erasmus’ points in a matter designed to make himself look far superior. To be honest, I don’t have time to write that all, and you don’t have time to read it. I think you get the picture.

Now, my mind went to The Bondage of the Will not only because of how much it drips with sarcasm, but also because it is the one work of Luther’s that a Calvinist is most likely to admire, being essentially a defense of the Doctrines of Grace that are so dear to Reformed folks…like those at TGC. Could it possibly be, I asked myself, that John Piper himself had endorsed this work of literature?

Yes, of course he did. In fact, at last year’s Together for the Gospel conference, Piper gave an address entitled “The Bondage of the Will, the Sovereignty of Grace, and the Glory of God”. He used Luther’s work as the starting point for his discussion of man’s lack of free will prior to the regeneration of the Spirit. By no means do I blame Piper for doing so, as this book was probably more instrumental in my own acceptance of the Doctrines of Grace than any other. However, it is interesting that he should laud this book, given the sarcastic nature of its content. Indeed, Desiring God, an organization founded by Piper, placed The Bondage of the Will on a semi-official reading list back in 2006.

Does this mean that John Piper is a hypocrite? No, not necessarily. It may be that he approves of the doctrines contained in the book, but not the more biting comments. Actually, I think what is happening is that both John Piper and Justin Taylor actually know that this issue is in fact more complicated than you might guess based upon their brief Twitter comments.

Being clever and making use of your cleverness is not necessarily a bad thing. Jesus out-clevered his opponents on numerous occasions and even called Herod “that fox”. (Luke 13:32) He used many phrases that could be seen as sarcastic. Ditto for the Apostle Paul, who rarely held back when confronting his opponents. Augustine had quite a lot of invective for Pelagius, even as the Nicene Fathers did for those who favored Arianism. History is so full of occasions on which theologians used sarcasm and satire to skewer their opponents that we are forced to conclude that they were either all ungodly, or perhaps God can use such cleverness after all.

The place where this pops up the most is probably the Reformation period. Throughout 2017, we are seeing practically every evangelical leader say how much they love the Reformers and how much we all owe to them. Yet, the Reformers were without question among the most brutal writers out there. To be fair, so were their opponents. This was not a humorless and deferential era. It was a time of great debates, when clever men attempted to outdo each other with their analogies, insults, and yes, even satire.

Title page of the 1525 edition of “The Bondage of the Will” by Martin Luther

Were these men merely focused on themselves? Was Martin Luther out for his own glory? Certainly, even the venerable Reformers made mistakes, and there are times in The Bondage of the Will where I would say Luther went too far with his insults, causing some damage to his overall message. Yet, had Luther not employed the same level of sarcasm against the Papacy and its defenders, his impact would have been less significant.

Satire can be extremely effective in pointing out the absurdities of error. Cleverness is often essential when facing down clever heretics. For these reasons, we should not be so quick to dismiss anyone who employs such methods. On the other hand, there is a good percentage of satire that is self-serving and distracts from the main issue at hand. Much like any other genre of literature, there are good apples and bad apples. The answer is not to demonize the tool, but rather to critique how it is used.

Is it possible, I ask, for someone to appear clever and yet still in need of God’s grace? There is a difference between being “clever” and “cocky”. One is not necessarily wrong, while the other is most certainly wrong. Therefore, the quote by James Denney – “No one can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” – seems at the very least to be in need of further explanation. The expansion of that principle to include satire seems a bit unfair to all the people who have successfully used satire over the years to confront corruption and expose error.

Is my analysis a bit biased? Am I simply unwilling to give up my jokes? Perhaps. However, I think there is a larger point. If you are going to call yourself an heir of the Reformation, you need to acknowledge the character of that Reformation. But more to the point, it would be good for us all to keep in mind that weighty theological issues cannot be properly expounded in 140 characters or less. That is the danger of Twitter.

[1] Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will (De Servo Arbitrio) in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Translated by Philip S. Watson. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969) Page 104.

[2] Luther, page 107

[3] Luther, page 130

[4] Luther, page 135

[5] Luther, page 146

[6] Luther, page 102

5 thoughts on “Should Christians Use Satire?

  1. And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1Kgs 18:26-27, ESV)

    Sounds like Elijah was being mighty satirical to me.

  2. I’m glad to come across your blog! I lived in Egypt for a couple of years working in the film industry – didn’t know there were any “Reformed” Christians around!

    Of course I only met a few Christians to begin with.

    • To be fair, it was Justin Taylor who first mentioned satire, not John Piper. However, the quote he Tweeted certainly begs the question. Just a lesson for us all to be careful on Twitter, really. It’s very unkind.

Comments are closed.